Susan Lacys HBO documentary unites the directors family, peers, critics and collaborators in an engaging look at his vast body of work
After nearly a half-century making films, Steven Spielbergs reputation is that of a populist rather than a subversive film-maker: a man whose body of work drove audiences to theaters more than it did defy artistic convention. Theres something unseemly about that, since Spielbergs crowning achievement his ability to give moviegoers what they wanted before they knew they wanted it was rooted in pushing the proverbial envelope.
Susan Lacys authorized HBO documentary is intent on revealing the true Spielberg, the artiste. To do so, shes assembled an impressively tenured Greek chorus of film-makers, actors, technicians and critics. There are appearances by the directors film-making peers: Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. Plus commentary from the stars, producers and collaborators on many of his films (Tom Hanks, John Williams, Janusz Kaminski, Daniel Day-Lewis, Harrison Ford et al). Theres even room for the critics whove both praised and pilloried his work, including Janet Maslin and AO Scott. The result is a panegyric thats at times too saintly but is nonetheless a fascinating exploration of Spielbergs career.
Lacy sketches the directors early life as a Jewish wunderkind from Phoenix, Arizona; the son of divorced parents (his mother Leah Adler was a homemaker, his formerly estranged father an engineer), who nearly abandoned his directorial ambitions after seeing Lawrence of Arabia as a teenager. (The film, as Spielberg explains, intimidated as much as it inspired him.)
But by the age of 20 he was directing Joan Crawford in Rod Serlings Night Gallery; then at 26, Goldie Hawn in The Sugarland Express, which Pauline Kael called phenomenal but said showed no sign of the emergence of a new film artist. At 30, Spielberg was cavorting with the movie brats Coppola, De Palma, Scorsese and Lucas who lavish their former fraternity brother with praise and chart his artistic growth, recounting the directors metamorphosis from boy wonder to box-office moneyspinner to eventual auteur. The kind of movie he had a sense for was also the kind of movie the audience had a sense for, Coppola notes.
Lacy, who previously directed PBSs American Masters series, does the same, in semi-chronological fashion, with most of the Spielberg oeuvre, from Jaws and Raiders of the Lost Ark to Jurassic Park and Schindlers List, for which the most time is reserved. Making Schindlers List made me reconcile with all the vainglorious reasons I hid from my Jewishness, says Spielberg. I avoided therapy because movies are my therapy.
She pays justifiably cursory attention to his less-loved films like Hook, Always, Amistad, The Terminal and Warhorse before pivoting towards the directors later work, Lincoln and Bridge of Spies, both of which are contextualized as products of his growing interest in democracy and moral rectitude. By omitting some of Spielbergs lesser work, and its attendant criticisms, the film veers dangerously close to hagiography, but while other documentaries, like The Shark is Still Working and Spielberg: Steven On Set, have concerned themselves with smaller slices of his career, in Spielberg you never doubt that theres more than enough material to chew on, and justify the films considerable length it comes in at over two and a half hours.